Article by Mike Subritzky from Vintage Tool Shop in Northcote, Melbourne. Carpenter & cabinet maker & tool collector since the 1980s.
One may ask - why collect old hand tools? Antique hand tools can range from ornate masterpieces of the toolsmiths work, to rustic simple user made examples. Collecting antique hand tools is quite a tactile connection to our past. When you look at an old tool & pick it up, you see the patina of a lifetime of use (or many lifetimes depending on the age of the tool). It's lovely to see previous owners marks & handprints worn onto a tool.
Quite often you will find a tool & then start researching the maker & it takes you down a wonderful rabbit hole of discovery into a bygone age. There is a treasure trove of information in historical trade directories that are valuable when trying to establish a particular makers working production dates.
Antique tools also offer a diverse scope for the collector, there are plenty of types & makers & trades to collect. One of my favourite things about collecting antique hand tools is that you can actually use them, they feel good in the hands & don't give you blisters like plastic handles. Quite often they can outperform their modern equivalents & be very satisfying to use with handles of exotic wood such as ebony, rosewood & mahogany to name a few.
Take the simple hand saw for example - hand saws arguably reached a pinnacle of design & materials by the first quarter of the 20th century. Saw handles were selected apple, cherry, rosewood or even ebony or other exotics on request; blades were taper ground each side & tensioned cast steel (old terminology for carbon steel), London spring, silver steel (an alloy often used in straight razors) & double refined London spring steel just to name a few. Every time a hand saw gets sharpened it loses a portion of its blade forever, over their lifetime saws got sharpened right down & then the blades cut up for cabinet scrapers. Considering this, 200 year old saws are far far rarer than 200 year old hand planes.
We picked up this little well made brass backed Howell (stamped Howel) saw, that was offered for sale in Melbourne. From the book "British Saws & Saw Makers from 1660" by Dr Simon Barley it dates the Howell saw to circa 1800, unusual to find it in a Melbourne, a city that was founded in 1835!
The other interesting thing about this little saw is the name engraved on the tapered brass spine - "T.Thallon" - in the finest well executed elegant cursive script, also engraved the same script carefully into the handle. After some research, we found that John & Thomas Thallon were an important Melbourne firm that specialised in carving, picture framing & gilding. Some important 19th century art works are well documented to have been framed by J&T.Thallon in 95 Collins St East, Melbourne, including works by Tom Roberts. I find it fascinating that this little saw made around 1800 in London, England, ended up in a Melbourne picture framers workshop & was possibly still in use in the 1880s. At present the plate is in obviously poor shape, the handle has missing & chipped horns, but it is a 219 year old saw. I would dearly love to know how this saw made its way into Mr Thallons workshop, but that's just wishful thinking!
PHOTO: Well-made brass backed Howell (stamped Howel)
Antique hand planes are another very popular category of hand tools for collecting, ranging from high end shapely & showy infill planes - such as Norris, Spiers, Mathieson, Preston, Slater etc, through to Stanley Tools numerous offerings & wooden moulding & bench planes, some of which can be well over 250 years old.
Infill planes are in a league of their own - dovetailed steel sides & sole or cast iron or bronze bases, stuffed with heavy exotic timbers like ebony & Indian & Brazilian rosewood & mahogany for added mass. Arguably the most desirable maker is Thomas Norris - his planes consistently command the higher prices compared to near identical shaped planes by the one of the first makers of the dovetailed bench plane - Scotsman Stewart Spiers. They are the Rolls Royce's of the hand plane world, with their hand built bodies, lustrous wood infills & ultra fine mouths with thick blades for taking rice paper thin wood shavings when used. Around WWII, Norris had to use stained beech as infills for their planes as rosewood was too difficult to source & so the beech infill planes are not as desirable. For a 28" pre war rosewood infill Norris jointer plane you could pay up to $14,000, but a WWII era Norris smoothing plane with a beech infill can be had for around $400.
PHOTO: L to R a Norris 22.5" No:1 jointer rosewood infill, a Norris A1 22.5" jointer rosewood infill, a Norris 15" panel plane rosewood infill, a Norris gunmetal & steel soled shoulder plane with rosewood infill.
Stanley bench planes are arguably the most common antique/vintage planes found. Stanley metallic planes can range from the common English or Australian made No:4, that seems to be in every shed, through to earlier American No:4 models, like the type 11's with their shapely rosewood low front knobs & 3 x patent dates cast into the bed of the plane behind the adjuster. When an Australian or English Stanley No:4 sells for around $30, a USA made type 11 circa 1910-18 can go for over $100. The holy grail for some collectors is the Stanley No.1 plane, the smallest bench plane produced by Stanley, good examples can go for $2000.
PHOTO: A diminutive Stanley No:1 bench plane shown next to a matchbox for scale.
Wooden planes have a particular appeal all of their own, there is a large scope of variety for collecting, the colour & patina on a well cared for & loved antique wooden plane can be a warm rich colour. Condition is very important for wooden planes, often they have been poorly treated & not ooked after correctly.
One of the worst things to happen to a wooden plane is over cleaning & or scraping & sanding - never ever be tempted to sand or scrape the finish off a wooden plane! They take 100+ years to get that colour & they will never recover it if sanded back, their collectibility is ruined. Clean gently only & wax with a high quality furniture wax.
Matching sets by the same maker are generally going to be worth more, but very much dependent on condition. Like with any tool, any age check, chip, crack, dent, missing wedge etc will dramatically affect value. Australian timbers are harder than the bodies of most wooden planes, so it's a good idea to check the underside of the planes for heavy wear & damage. A half set of 9 x 2 (18 planes) hollows & round moulding planes can be had for less than $200, if a harlequin set (mixed makers) & not crisp. The same set if by a single maker & crisp & mint can go for $1000+.
PHOTO: A matched half set of hollows & rounds by John Mosley circa 1830s, all sporting the same owners stamp.
Makers were proud of their tools & stood by them. Sometimes a well loved tool will sport the names of 4 or more owners stamped or engraved into its flank. It really shows that we don't really own any tool, but are just custodians of them for a while in their lifetime...
PHOTO: User made tools: from top - a lignum vitae ships carpenters plane with riveted together with copper ships nails; two user made colonial era spokeshaves fashioned out of native Australian timbers.
PHOTO: A Spiers infill smoothing plane & Spiers duplex bullnose rebate plane with two cutters.
PHOTO: Two fenced plough planes- the plane on the right has been over cleaned & lost its colour & has lost any value as a collectible tool.